One of my courses this semester felt slightly off. I’ve taught this course enough times to see some variations in how and when the students are engaged by this material. This group seemed the least engaged I’ve seen. There were plenty of dynamic students, good end-of-term papers and the readings seem as interesting as ever from my perspective.
It may just be the mix of students. One of the best things any institution could do for a junior professor is give them two sections of the same class just to see the difference that the accidental mix of different personalities can make in a course. I had that experience early in my career at Swarthmore, and it gave me a sense of perspective I couldn’t have had any other way. Or maybe it’s the size–the class was too large by about ten people. We got into that dreaded pattern where only a few people were highly active in discussion, other people settled into silence and from there drifted in and out of connection to the course as a whole.
However, I think one of the most dangerous things for any professor is to just stick with a particular elective or topical course no matter what, to assume that some material or approach is timeless.
Many years ago, I taught a class on colonialism and gender where I decided almost immediately after the end of the semester that it was the last time I would teach it. It wasn’t a bad class from the perspective of the students, judging from their evaluations. The problem was that the historiographical debates that I was trying to discuss with the students didn’t seem debatable as far as they were concerned. I wanted to ask them how and when to choose between focusing on gender and focusing on other topics or perspectives. Their answer was that you can always do it all: race/class/gender/sexuality, plus anything else that interests you or seems important. I wanted to talk about whether “gender” as a category made sense cross-culturally or across time, and they seemed to find that a non-question. I wanted to read some of the critiques of feminism as a Western, white, middle-class project and figure out how to consider, accept or reject those critiques. They shrugged. They were very interested in some of the historiography, particularly material on masculinity in colonial societies. Even the material they weren’t interested in, they were thoughtfully disinterested. These were smart, thoughtful students. So I took their reaction seriously. It suggested to me that a historiography that had meant something to me while I was in graduate school no longer meant much to contemporary students.
When I talk to colleagues who are disappointed by similar disengagement from or indifference to a long-running course, I often ask them to consider whether the shelf life for the course has expired, at least in the form that they’re accustomed to teaching. If that’s true, you can put it aside, but you can also try to strip it back to some essential or deeper question posed by the material. It may be that the scholarship you’re teaching about has gotten too baroque, too consumed by its own miniature intellectual history, too much a game for insiders. But it may also be that the course is about issues that current students are no longer prepared to study or no longer much interested in thinking through.
On the other hand, the whole point of scholarship is to preserve an ongoing conversation about subjects that matter. One of the basic missions of any curriculum is stewardship, to define what it is that students do not yet know and what it is that we believe they should know and be able to do by graduation. Some classes you’d never want to retire even if students no longer had an intuitive or instinctive engagement with the subject matter. I might decide that a course on some particular aspect of African history or cultural history is no longer viable, but I’m not about to decide that African history as a whole is no longer worth teaching.
It may be easier for me than for some people to just rip up my syllabi and start fresh, because I routinely do that even with courses I teach regularly. I don’t keep lecture notes from year to year: I always re-do my outlines. The more your own teaching practice is built around a legacy of preparation, the harder it may be to write that preparation off as a sunken cost. Also, the more responsible you are to a core curriculum that has been worked out as a shared or collective project, the less leeway you have. No matter what, though, you’ve got to do some spring cleaning from time to time on your personal catalog.